by Claire Chambers
Something rather different comes out of fiction by three Bengali women writers based in Britain, as compared to the male authors I examined in Banglaphone Fiction I and II. In this third and final part of the essay, I first examine Monica Ali who, in her novel Brick Lane, mostly evokes life in Britain, with only occasional and usually proleptic descriptions of Bangladesh. By contrast, Sunetra Gupta's Memories of Rain is at once intercontinental, urban, and stateless – often all within a single sentence. The final author Tahmima Anam deploys an alternative strategy again, choosing, in A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, to abjure representations of Britain altogether, in favour of a concentrated focus on the Bangladeshi nation.
Let us begin by looking at a resonant passage from the early part of Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 novel that like Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize:
‘This is another disease that afflicts us,' said the doctor. ‘I call it Going Home Syndrome. Do you know what that means?' He addressed himself to Nazneen. …
‘[W]hen they have saved enough they will get on an aeroplane and go?'
‘They don't ever really leave home. Their bodies are here but their hearts are back there. And anyway, look how they live: just recreating the villages here. … But they will never save enough to go back. … Every year they think, just one more year. But whatever they save, it's never enough.'
‘We would not need very much,' said Nazneen. Both men looked at her. She spoke to her plate.
No text exemplifies more clearly the contrast between the England-returned and the myth of return migrants that I discuss elsewhere than Brick Lane. The above quotation illustrates what the medical man Dr Azad calls ‘Going Home Syndrome', a disease that he claims afflicts Bangladeshi migrants. This links with a strand in the novel about the migrant's sense of being out of place, which can lead to mental illness such as Nazneen's collapse due to ‘nervous exhaustion'. (See Esra Santesso's Disorientation for a good reading of this.)
Probably the most important means by which migrants either try to assimilate in the host country or turn away from it towards the homeland is through education. At first, Nazneen's husband Chanu imagines himself to be immune to Going Home Syndrome, and tries instead to make a life for himself in Britain. When he arrives in England, all Chanu has is the usual few pounds in his pocket, along with the significant additional item of his degree certificate. In England he undertakes classes in everything from nineteenth-century economics to cycling proficiency, and acquires further certificates. These he frames and displays on the wall of his and Nazneen's poky Tower Hamlets home, as a talisman of his hopes of promotion at work and the consequent acquisition of a comfortable life in London. Yet his dreams remain unrealized, whether because of institutional racism at his work or his own incompetence is never made clear. Chanu's aspirations then take a bitter turn towards his becoming an England-returned success story. He clings increasingly to the fantasy of returning to Dhaka in financial and social triumph. However, as sociologist Muhammad Anwar argues, this notion of return migration often proves to be a myth, especially because wives and children help men to put down roots in the new country. Nazneen and especially her young daughters Shahana and Bibi fear their father's longed-for homecoming. The rationale for going back to Dhaka is tenuously based on a saviour complex – to rescue Nazneen's sister, the vulnerable ingenue Hasina whose unwittingly alarming letters to Nazneen about sexual grooming and exploitation pepper the narrative – but the three women now have roots in Britain. They decide to stay on. Trailing clouds of defeat more than glory, the patriarch Chanu goes home on his own.